Monday, February 24, 2014

On Public Intellectualism, and Vertical and Horizontal Divides

When somebody walks into a perfectly nice room full of people and takes a shit on the floor, everybody reacts. Somebody checks on the defecator to see why this happened, somebody opens the windows to let the air in, somebody else gets a mop and a bucket, some extraordinarily well-composed characters carry on, pretending that it didn’t happen. But a lot of things are revealed in that moment.

This week’s room-shitter is Nicholas Kristof, who wrote a column whinging about how academics are keeping their valuable knowledge locked up, or only developing useless knowledge, or… well, it’s not exactly clear what he’s arguing, since those two arguments are in fact diametrically opposed. The column was, as mentioned, a turd. But it got lots of responses, spurred the whole room to action, in fact. (I here abandon the metaphor, you’ll be happy to know.) There were a great number of academic responses pretty much tearing Kristof’s premises to shreds, but Matt Houlbrook  and Corey Robin homed right in on the position of the academic in the contemporary economy: 

  • Quoth Corey: The problem here isn’t that typically American conceit of “culture” v. nonconformist rebel. It’s the very material pressures and constraints young academics face, long before tenure. It’s the job market.  It’s the rise of adjuncts. It’s neoliberalism. Jacoby understood the material sources of the problem he diagnosed. Kristof doesn’t.

  • And Matt: If only it was that easy. Here is the problem that Schama misses: engaging with an audience beyond the academy often (but by no means always) means participating in a market in knowledge-as-entertainment. And like all neoliberal capitalist markets this one is profoundly unequal. We do not have the same resources to draw upon when we participate it; not do we have equal access to the mediating institutions and networks that control access to that market.

As an academic publisher (as Matt’s publisher, no less!) I get just a wee bit defensive about hints of exploiting the labor of academics. A couple of points, therefore, seemed in order with respect to the structures in which academic work gets put out to the world—and what I see as the issues separating knowledge-makers from society. And, to be fair to Kristof, this separation is a better summary of the problem that he's trying to articulate, but to be fair to his critics, one common thread among those respondents is that it bridging that divide is something that many academics are trying to do. But publishers, whose very mission is the dissemination of knowledge, have been (from what I’ve seen, and I think I’m pretty plugged-in) absent from the discussion. 

One of Robin’s arguments is that Kristof is a symptom: someone who is as well-informed as he is should in fact be more familiar with the many publicly engaged academics out there. But this is a symptom of a serious problem, what I refer to as the "middle of the market falling out.* There are a very few well-known (and well-compensated) public intellectuals, and a great many blogging along wonderfully but not making any money or fame or reward beyond the approval of their audience. This is not just a problem for that latter category of writers, but for the quality of our public argument as well. 

It is totally fair to say that publishers need to to a better job. Academic institutions (departments and societies) see academic publishers as part of the peer-review and promotion process,** not as outward-facing institutions who bring knowledge to the public. The movement toward Open-Access requirements on the part of funders assumes  that the important work of academic publishers is peer review; once something is vetted and ready to go, it should be given away free. A noble aspiration, indeed, and publishers wonder “how are we to survive in this environment? Where will we get funded? How do we justify what we do, so that people will continue to pay us to do it?” And so we talk about what we do—you can just go through the departments of a press: acquisitions, manuscript editing, design, production, marketing, sales, royalties payment—but we don’t talk about the importance of the market itself. 

Peer review is a judicial model; it is very explicitly posing a yes-or-no question (to publish or not) to a jury of one’s peers. And that provides a valuable type of information, as well as one particular kind of equality. However, it is a dangerous naiveté to suppose that a judicial system provides some form of unalloyed truth, still less of worth (of persons, in the case of the justice system; of ideas, in the case of the university). 

And this is where the market itself comes in. It also provides valuable information***—and (here’s where I part most from Robin and Matt) a valuable kind of equality. The market doesnt merely fill the role of rewarding better ideas with cash, although publishers' very dependence on sales provides a necessary gut-check on the limits of peer review. 

The equality that the market brings to academia is that consumers of ideas are equal: the $29 that a professor pays for a book means precisely as much to us as the $29 that an interested undergraduate pays, or the $29 of a fringe theorist, or—to bring us full circle—the person watching a TV show about World War I, who shows up at a bookstore (or, more likely, at Amazon) saying, "Hey, I’d like to learn more about life on the Home Front.” 

This delicate balance between judicial and market models is in peril—like the status of public intellectuals, books, too, are developing a bimodal distribution on the price and circulation axes. Too many publishers’ catalogs have affordable trade books up front, and $100+ academic books at the back, with the middle range sparse or nonexistent.**** (I’m proud to say that we are holding out against this trend, and doing our damnedest to keep our books under $40. ... Ok, well, $50.) 

One can only fault publishers so much; the sales data indicate that we only lose a few sales when we raise prices on an academic book, but the problem is who those marginal cases are: they are precisely the interested non-academic reader. The person who is not buying a book because it is required for class, or because it must be cited in the next article to be written. In short, it is in that middle ground that good—and even great—public scholarship occurs. Yes, the marginal cases are few, but they make all the difference. 

I’d like to say, “bwahahaha! Look at those foolish other publishers, ceding this area to us!” but the fact is that we’re all operating in the same arena and the many pressures of competition (hey, I never said markets were perfect, just that they had virtues!) are pushing us all into a bifurcated catalog. We need a robust community of middle-range books and scholars in order to keep a healthy ecosystem of ideas—and one that bears fruit for citizens outside the academy. 


* I haven’t yet read Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over but from his summaries of and nods to it, I think there are many institutional parallels to the argument he’s making about employment and skills. 

**As I pointed out in the kerfuffle over the American Historical Association’s statement on Open Access, the most embarrassing part of their statement was that one of the cnetral goals of the historical profession is the acquisition of a publishing contract—an awful confusion over means and ends. 

***I have to tip the hat here to Natalia Cecire, whose slide deck on "Distributed Knowledge and the Digital" is (cheekily) full of Hayek. 

****Worse, though, is seeing a book supposedly intended for a general audience with a price tag of $150. 

No comments: